Crabs in a Bucket

There is a famous Khasi middle class story about selfishness and it goes something like this. There were a number of crabs in a bucket and they were all destined to become dinner at some point in time. The crabs knew about this and they realised that they needed to escape this horrible fate. The story goes on to tell us about how one of the crabs had somehow managed to get a firm grip on the rim of the bucket and was proceeding to pull himself out to the relative safety of the outside world. However, just as he was about to complete his great escape, the other crabs resorted to pulling him back down to the bottom of the bucket. He was, thus, doomed like the rest. The moral that many Khasi people draw from this is that Khasis are like the crabs in that they are inherently selfish and would rather pull other Khasis down rather than raise them up to greater heights or glory (or as the story goes, to freedom). It is one of those stories that Khasi middle class society has learned off by rote and which comes out often during drinking sessions. I have heard it so many times that I instinctively cringe at it when I happen to hear the familiar lines: “Ki briew jong ngi te ki long kum ki tham…”(our people are like crabs…).

So firstly, this story is about as Khasi as sliced bread or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Many people the world over use the same allegory to voice the same complaints within their own particular contexts. The conclusion is usually the same so there is nothing Khasi about this in a strict purist sense. I have heard Bodo people say it, Mizos tell each the same thing, Bengalis as well as the Assamese. Selfishness it can be argued is a universal human feature. Now the other thing is – and this might shock some of you – crabs are not human beings! We may enjoy our Jataka and Panchatantra tales but they are hardly manuals on human behaviour. What do you think is going to happen?

The story of the crabs in the bucket is actually a philosophical experiment. It is easy for the listener to condemn the apparently selfish act of the crabs in the bucket but is it so straightforward? Who is actually being selfish? The singular individual crab or the clawed throng that pulls him back? The way you look at the story depends on the type of person you are. If you are a person who prides individual achievement over collective interests then you’d side with the lone crab hero. Most people would boo and jeer at the throng for their pettiness. However, the other side of the story is this: our hero is, probably, a real selfish bastard.

It is actually unfair that the story unfolds as it does. Does it tell us how many crab heads our hero stepped on to get to the top? It is a story – like many others – about the sacrosanct virtue of individual achievement. It is a nice story and many of us identify with that crab: triumphant, glorious (and undoubtedly) egotistical. We immediately associate crowds with hysteria, violence and viciousness.

When we turn to politics, we see this very clearly. Our politicians stand over us: unassailable, irreproachable, haughty. Many of them actually come from humble settings and humble locales but you wouldn’t know it based on the way they act. These are the crabs who’ve made it to the top but whom no one dared pull down. We forget that they rose to their current heights because of the belief people have invested in them. Upon climbing up high though they have proceeded to defecate upon the same devotees. Only the businessmen and contractor friends are enjoying themselves. The “common” people have nothing but filth on their faces.

If we are going to compare crabs with humans, perhaps, another version of the ‘crabs in the bucket’ story could be as follows: the crabs organise a ‘great escape’, after many sessions of careful planning and coordination, they come up with the idea of using a distraction to fool the humans while one of their best trained crabs climbs over the wall with the help of some others. The said crab would then drop down an escape line and thus everyone could be saved. This is a nicer scenario because it argues for a better, much happier conclusion. Rather than the original story which pits individual survival against collective doom, in this version of the story everyone is saved! This version lays emphasis on the importance of teams and team-work. That the crab-hero could not be triumphant without the aid of others is understood and accepted by everyone including the hero crab.

An interesting tangent that arises from my version of the tale is this: when the crab-hero gets to the top, it has two choices – to either drop the escape line and help rescue the others or to save only its own skin and run away? Based on these two choices, certain economists, politicians and technocrats say that people – being intrinsically selfish and self-involved – would choose the latter option as it is the one that requires the least amount of work and time. It turns out to be the most “profitable”. This was essentially the situation and conclusion proposed by the mathematician John Nash in a game he helped devise called “Fuck You, Buddy!”. Through it he inferred that humans would always try to fulfill their own selfish desires; so our crab-hero must always – according to his rational logic – desert his comrades and leave them to their fate. However, the actual results of Nash’s game showed that people, in fact, did not behave like that. Most people (empirically) tried to help one another and negotiate with each other in order to achieve a collective goal or desire in the game. Can we not apply this to politics and economics as well? Why must we be drawn into false binaries which do not reflect reality and the experience of living together as a society?

The last interesting thought that I want to extract from this scenario is perhaps the most realistic. Let me repeat the query again: when the crab-hero gets to the top, it has two choices – to rescue the others or to save its own skin. In a political sense, for its own future power, the crab-hero should save the others. Their gratitude and appreciation would guarantee the hero-crab the fruits of a secure and prosperous life. The other crabs would deify him for his apparent selfishness. This is perhaps the most Machiavellian (or Chanakyan if you prefer). It is also the most ‘true-to-life’ scenario which mirrors our political world today.

There is scope for a lot of abuse of power based on this outcome. Individuals could abuse the privilege of their office to gain and accrue wealth as we see it today in Meghalaya. The key to thwarting this must surely lie in the public realising its own power. The public will have to realise that the individual desire for power is real but so too is its own power to shape and control it. Unless this happens, only doom awaits us

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Comrade, I’ll add you on Facebook

Many politically active people love Facebook. It has made their need for expression more vibrant and has widened the reach of their deeds and words. Everyone now can have a channel or a medium for broadcasting their views and opinions. This is the so-called ‘democratic’ aspect of Facebook. This is the subversive, even supposedly radical, feature that it is supposed to possess. We are cornered today by Big Media like CNN and their indigenous offshoots such as Times Now. Facebook has come along to save us from these ‘nasties’.

Many people are on Facebook because they claim that it makes their access to, and consumption of, information easier. It is a one-stop shop for their information-needs. They consider it a vital link in the chain between the info-makers and themselves. This is true enough but as censorship of progressive issues by Facebook has shown, information is not without filtration. If we are seeking ‘real’ info about the world and the events in it, Facebook might not be the best way to get it. The Internet was touted until the early 2000s as a great “information superhighway” that would democratize knowledge and spread information equally throughout the world. Because of this perhaps many governments have initiated legislations to curb the power and scope of the Internet, such that today it has lost much of its liberating potential.

That potential is further weakened by the policemen – beyond the State agencies – which includes Facebook. Facebook has for all purposes become the Internet for a large number of people globally. The Internet might still in reality be a highway of information but its traffic is being controlled and directed in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways. Facebook is one of these shepherds. Its advocacy for faster ‘lanes’ (speeds) within the Internet, the odious Free Basics project and its courting of vested government and corporate interests that are willing to pay to promote their products, within its programme, all point to a deep desire for control by the company. Maybe one can ‘subvert’ it but I doubt this; it seems that the Facebook revolutions that were claimed by many are no longer affecting much change. Maybe that is because they were probably never realised because of Facebook, in the first place.

Further, what Facebook has given us is not just information but a glut of it. Any credible news is immediately followed by oppositional info, such that we are drowned in the possibilities that all sides are equally and entirely correct (or wrong). This destroys in effect all possibilities of political change that might arise. For instance, the BJP might be accused of a scam and immediately someone emerges to accuse the INC of the same. The issue then becomes oppositional/polarised instead of progressive; the issue should be about corruption and how to tackle it; not about BJP honesty vs. INC honesty.

Because of the swiftness, and more importantly copiousness, of the information via social media, many of us forget to cross check or investigate the claims that are made. Traditional ‘long form’ journos lose out and wild outrageous news floods us within seconds. Facebook is not the only one to blame here of course but its ubiquity is something that must be looked at suspiciously.

Has Facebook really made our lives better than it was before it came along? I seriously doubt this. It has just stepped in and simplified our ways of connecting with each other but it has herded us into groups where we can all love, hate, dislike or like something collectively. Experts have rightly called Facebook an “echo chamber”, where one can only hear one’s own beliefs being articulated in a positive manner; real criticism is not allowed.

Facebook claims that this is not true and that people can make up their own minds about what to follow or like. But how easy is it to be on “automatic” mode, how seductive is the choice of no choice! Many of the groups, the majority of them, I’d have to say, don’t want to ‘mix’ with other groups. Facebook has made our borders more distinct when it could have chosen different models for user interactions. But that is what you get when you bring scale into the picture, I suppose.

Facebook is the prime example of a digital multicultural society with no integration/interchange, it mirrors reality, in the online realm; and much like the real world, power is held firmly by the few on top.

My own personal issue with Facebook stems from my belief that it has not enhanced creativity at all but severely reduced it to fit into a status bar. I mean this in relation to writers and not really audio-visual people. Facebook has destroyed the ability of writers to frame a thought beyond a few lines. The instant gratification of the ‘likes’ that our friends would (no doubt) bestow upon our oft-times reactionary silly ‘sweet nothings’ is too tempting for many to defer. This robs us of pursuing an idea further and making it more complicated, developing its body. The dangerous lulls of uncritical praise have stunted ideas into shrubs when they could have been trees. The immediate response that one might get from across the Facebook platform has made it addictive and appealing but is that why someone should write or create? There’s the thing we must ask ourselves.

Poets and wordsmiths might be put off by my assertions. The platform, after all, encourages brevity – the soul of wit. Many would also say that Facebook allows a free and wide distribution of their works which is one of the positives. Maybe at the stage of distribution it could be used effectively but a profile, for me, distracts the creative process a lot (unless the author is researching and writing about Facebook!). These are rigid arguments arising out of my rigid belief in the writer’s process. By arguing in this manner, I make my own beliefs clear and it is up to the listener to decide for herself whether she also feels the same way. You needn’t ‘like’ this.

Fatalism of the Left

It seems that I must contend myself with some dire facts about the Indian Left through a survey of raiot.in, scroll.in and other similar websites. For one, people who share the items that are found on these websites, seem to be thinking and reacting (this is an important word for politics in India – reaction) as a monolithic, homogenous entity. I am very welcoming of any and all objections to this generalising and reductive statement. A simple perusal will show you what is trending at the moment i.e what is trending everywhere i.e everywhere with similar ideologies.

Sharing does not necessarily mean that a post has been viewed or read. If it were the same thing I would not find the trend so frightening. Firstly, I think it is frightening when so many people share posts without even opening them.  And it is equally frightening that people might actually read something critical and engaging but refuse to share it because it makes them question beliefs and/or staves off their clicking fingers. For example, an informative, well-researched article which discusses the crucially important (and neglected) state of agricultural health in the country (a topic that should be the kernel of the Left’s political foundations) is thus less shared than one that repeats the jaded theme of ‘anti-Modism’. He is not worth your time; prioritise people! Lovers of the Left, please deactivate your Facebook accounts today!

The traffic on social media in the last few months, in the aftermath of the JNU, HCU fiascos has weighed favourably to the side of the persecuted. Maybe social media has actually helped in turning things around; perhaps it is social media that has redeemed the persecuted in the eyes of the middle class. But let us not kid ourselves further beyond that point. This is just a war of visibility. The key feat should be moving towards representation. And I am not talking about a “space” – online or imagined – but a physicality that we should work towards. The Left has always and probably will always be powerful in the realm of ideas. But this is not good enough, not now in this global age of hunger and strife. The ground is overrun with Right wing psychos and their close cousins, the Liberal psychos. Where is the Progressive Left in all of this?

Examples like those of Syriza, the POTUS candidature of Jill Stein, the triumph of Kshama Sawant have helped make us less orthodox across the Left spectrum. The realm of ideas is being slowly reclaimed from the Facebook intellectuals and confined academics. It is now becoming truly more democratic. Revolution will only ever occur when we talk less of it. I think enough time has passed now such that the concept has become part of the ideological foundation of many comrades across the spectrum. However, like a bad preacher – merely quoting verses, by hearting psalms – we keep haranguing on it as though we are the only ones who know it or have heard the blessed word.

Meghalaya/India needs a political intervention by a Progressive front. “Struggles” should perhaps give way to “movements”. Why be so masochistic? The very word “struggle” smacks of pessimism. We cannot and never win so we “struggle”. We struggle when we have no floor-plan, no vision of the future, when we are reacting. We glorify the underdog, and it is a fantastic thing because it keeps us honest and alert. But the basic thing about underdogs is: they always win.

Dying with a Little Patience – On the Indian Left

We have heard a variety of opinions from the Left about the events surrounding JNU, Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban, the Patiala House assault etcetera. Our attention was drawn to the hypocrisies of the supposedly radical (the main stream Left parties) who tried to explain away the issues, or did not acknowledge them at all. Then our already ‘weakened’ belief systems were further complicated with the entry of Dalit perspectives on the matter. One writer commented quite eloquently on how the JNU violence was a response by the Hindu Right at the re-assemblage of the Left into a force that was bringing together non-Manuvad and ‘minority’ elements together. This might very well be true. The whole thing was quite a storm but I think our minds are better for it. I was sitting in Shillong, enthralled by the events that occurred in Delhi, like the rest of the country: I empathised with the trio, I railed against Goswami. There was even a small demonstration here in solidarity with the students of JNU and their cause. The ridiculousness of the situation shall be chronicled for our future generations to ponder over.

Then, Kanhaiya came out of custody and wooed the young men and women with his speech. Sadly as my Hindi is very basic (to say the very least), I could not understand him in entirety. In the English translation text, he hit all the right notes and checked all the right boxes. Some people opined that this “Kanhaiya moment” could be seen as the emergence of a New Left – a Left which could bring together Dalit, tribal, Muslim, LGBT, the poor, farmers, rural workers et al in the struggle for a better future. Well, it is optimism which must be appreciated though realities are, of course, difficult.

In 2014, Scotland organised a plebiscite to decide whether it would continue to stay or leave the UK. It was an actual historic event, it was not simply chatter. No one interfered with its decision to hold the plebiscite, none of its actions were considered sedition, and secessionism was not a crime but a right. In India, words like secession are straightaway censored, speakers of such words arrested. It’s just a word! Its articulation does not mean the breakdown of the Indian state. Its articulation does not mean chaos and lawlessness. It’s just a word. What about the way people in the North East feel (or felt) towards the Indian Union? Do the feelings of difference that they have towards the rest of the country count as sedition? In the eventual course of history, do they not have a right to decide what their own aspirations are?

Now, turning our attention elsewhere. I have a problem with many Leftist friends and foes in that I do not think politics (as in the canvassing-winning-elections type) is a bad thing. This is because I cannot imagine a future where we are simultaneously “emancipated” but also bound by helplessness. If anything, it seems like a very selfish liberation: how can I be “free” but cannot change the world? We MUST change it. Some opine that would be a “co-opting of the radicalism of the revolution”; others say something as insipid as “politics is a dirty game”, to which I say “don’t hate the game, hate the players!” I sometimes wonder if this problem is because Left intellectuals are almost always situated in urban centres – in spite of their contestations to be rural or pro-poor. Could it be that the urban solitude and spiritual distance keeps them (in the Left) from fully imagining a political future together? One in which we could all take part in? How can we talk about workers’ rights, labour reforms etc when we do not think seriously about how to bring them about? ‘Movements’ and ‘struggles’ are all well and good but perhaps we must insist on expeditiousness in the face of starvation, abject poverty and horrible livelihoods. People are dying while we debate revolutionary praxis. The CPI, CPI (M) and others like them have apparently failed us, so do we lose steam and faith because of that? Or do we learn from their mistakes?

Judging from what I read of Kanhaiya’s speech, I personally feel that he would be well-suited to formally enter politics, not just remain within the activism which has made him famous. Someone called him an Ambedkarite. That is very high praise. Do we remember that Ambedkar was not just an activist, a gifted lawyer and academic but also that he was a seasoned politician as well? He contested elections and won. He also lost later on but that is not the point. The point is, and it’s a jaded maxim: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. The Right and Neo-libs might not be evil (or maybe they’re all pure evil!) but we have definitely not done enough. In terms of the footwork and organising, the Left is woefully behind. We are always caught “reacting” to situations, events and then we flex our muscles to show that we still have strength. There is a lot of talk in a lot of universities about ‘revolution’ but very little about people – people like the ones I see daily, suffering and struggling in life. Let’s say, tomorrow if Kanhaiya and thousands like him join the AAP or INC, can we get angry at them, would the decision be entirely their own? Are there no lessons to be had from the path of George Fernandes and others like him? History is cyclical, apparently.

I feel terribly apprehensive about the future of Kanhaiya and his comrades. What will happen to these guys? I am not talking only in lieu of the authorities. What support system can we provide for them after this traumatic ordeal? What about their prospects after being tried and vilified in front of millions? I hope that they are not abandoned by those who cheer for them now. I have been going on about the need for a political groundwork which would challenge the current scenario. Before this, people in the Left must decide what they believe in (I realise this is hard). If one is an anarchist, socialist, Maoist (and everything in between) then declare yourself as one. It’s absolutely fine, you have every right to. But having patchwork ideological frameworks, without any teleological commitment, cannot be the stepping stones to a better future. Perhaps the most crucial question that everyone needs to answer is: what is their idea of the future?

Shillong Memories: Contending and Contentious

I recently sat down to rest at the side of the Shillong Centenary Monument, the one opposite the State Central Library. Next to me was an old Bengali man who was drunk. We started talking about the town and the incidents in the past, meaning he started talking and I tried to understand what he was saying. What little I could comprehend painted a picture of Shillong that I cannot truly imagine today. He spoke about how Police Bazaar looked back in the day, maybe similar to how parts of Laban or Mawkhar still look like today. How the Governor’s Residence looked like without the road and walls around it today, he talked about personalities long since departed. He described the geography and history of the place in a ‘warm’ manner and that is probably the greatest gift any narrator can have.

However, as I say that, there were also some things which I find hard to accept. The main one being his assertion that the communities of various localities never had any problems amongst themselves prior to the Anti (Assamese) Language protests in the 1950s. We know that many different communities once lived together in areas that are today considered strictly tribal or non-tribal neighbourhoods. Areas like Mawkhar, Mawprem, Mawlai once had fairly large non tribal populations. Today only few such families/individuals (who had already integrated fairly well) call these places home. I run the risk of categorisation but it is not my intent to delve deeply into the singular lives of individuals here. My personal reservation with the statement, that prior to the 1950s all was hunky-dory between the communities, is because it seems to be based on a heavily romanticised version of Shillong history. Everyone is suffering from this, regardless of race. This imagined harmony is at odds with the grim picture of a reality in which people who supposedly “lived together peacefully” picked up daos, brands, crowbars and decided to do away or expel their former neighbours forever.

We can always blame the Reorganisation of the states, we can always find an external bogeyman to hate but the truth that confronts us says something more: If we lived in “peace” why was it so seemingly easy to kill and cast out our erstwhile neighbours? If today, we can forgive what happened back then, we should also ask ourselves what were the reasons for them happening in the first place? It is quite clear that there were real human tensions back then. People had insecurities and fears back then, as they do today. The Language issue was the explosion, it was not the pressure that led up to it. For this, we would have to dredge through the (romantically) mired past. I would wager, even, that it was not only the British/Europeans who were at fault as many in the Right like to point out. The Divide and Rule policy was hardly anything new if we confront things from a non-nationalistic perspective, especially in this part of the world. We, also, cannot simply blame “dkhars” for all the problems of the world. They cannot carry all our sins on their crosses. We would see the collusion of a number of interests if we truly sought out facts.

Perhaps in our attempt to cover up the trauma of those years of strife and friction, we divide history into easily workable blocks: in this case, pre- and post Language agitation. Pre-agitation might very well have been a time of building and working together but it is erroneous to assume that there was always “peace”. In side houses or taverns, in the tea shops or offices were there no complaints or hate mongering against the other communities? The stereotypes and crude racial caricatures that we use today must have had origins in that past. These are the same insensitive images that make violence acceptable and casual. We can attack, more efficiently, that which we consider inhuman. We can justify causing them pain, because it is not our pain.

I was once privy to an odd event at a dinner. There were two young people at the table – an Assamese and a Bengali- along with the older Khasi host. I cannot remember the exact topic of conversation but suddenly our host became very emotional upon her vivid description of the burning down of some non-tribal houses at Garikhana. She turned to the Assamese and Bengali, asking them to forgive her community. I was amazed at the spectacle, as were the two non tribal friends. Isn’t that the way forward: reconciliation with the past? Confronting those memories head-on would take time and strength but they have to be revisited if we are to go forward. We should not be naive and think that since certain things occurred in the past, they must be buried deep down. They can happen again if we are not careful. The current atmosphere of taut nerves does not give me hope. Only a new politics can address the mistakes and prepare us for the future. We must make an attempt at histories without too much bias. We must revisit why Nongmali is called by that name, who taught many of the residents of Mawkhar breadmaking, who helped raise the foundations of many socio-cultural organisations/institutions we have today and so on. The shared histories are definitely there. Whether they were truly filled with peace is a different matter altogether but perhaps we can find it, for the future generations, by looking back (with a brave eye) and not grounding ourselves in the baseless and supposedly grand.

What Mawlai Does Not Have

(For Ampareen)

No Chanel with gutkha smell, no models beside garbage piles, no need for roundabouts, regrettable busts, traffic lights or traffic cops.

No CRPF (syiar pi) goons for our insecurity, for midnight threats and slaps, for moral policing, for bribe taking and eve eyeing, no AK, lathi or Hindi fence.

We’ve got problems but we’re not trying to hide them under tar, cement or steel. You can always turn away if you drive past. We cut the stuff out in the open, display it on hooks: you decide what parts you want.

Community i.e. Head| Freedom i.e. Heart| Fight i.e. Liver

The Murder of Bisheshwar Das

(In light of the fact that people with Right Wing sensibility are sharing my work, I want to make it known that I am against the Saffron/BJP or Jihadist or Republican Weltanschauung )

I had eaten a few times in your little shop, while waiting for a friend. It smelt, like all “chai dukans”, of sickly grease and day-old “ras”. Bits from customers’ tables littered the floor and any health inspector would say it was a breeding ground for vermin. Like all “chai dukans” it was at its best in the morning, especially winters. Everything fresh, relatively cleaner and the morning cold matched the warmth of the tea. It was a feeling one looked forward to and I am sure the “kids” at Sankardev would say the same. I wonder what will happen to it now that you are no longer around.
_____________________________________

I will not apologize for my community because these people do not represent my community. My community, as it is today, does not represent “my” community.

A community that is blind to the pain of others, that keeps its ears sealed and mouths shut, and worse, brains blunt.

A community of “Christians” that worship at the temple of Corporate Excess.

A community without a spirit or past, a community of Sunday suits and alcoholic deaths.

A community of equals, except when a woman speaks up and then she must “shutthefuckup”.

A community that does business with Fascists over the coal-mines and cement plants of Jaintia Hills.

A community where class and caste does not exist, except if you’re poor or if you suddenly take off the shades.

My community is not this mess. It is not what Khasis or Dkhars say it is in interviews, articles, blogs, books, poems. It is a community open to change and dynamic but self steering, solid in traditions but not immutable.

Bah Das, whose samosas filled stomachs, and whose very existence provoked thought. On communalism, poverty, multi-culturalism, immigration- you know, the current stuff. In your own way, you brought richness – infusing “foreign” thoughts and words into our own – as it’s always been. What will happen now that you are no longer around?